Today
Sun 1 August 2021

Heidi Siegmund Cuda talks to network disinformation specialist Dave Troy about how a trifecta of conservative, Russian and military psyops tried to overturn global democracy

Network analyst and disinformation specialist Dave Troy has been documenting the connections between former American military and intelligence agents who are spreading conspiracy theories linked to a disinformation phenomenon known as QAnon. 

He also has been tying up loose ends between powerful right-wing groups such as the Council for National Policy (CNP) and its history with Kremlin-linked operatives. 

The CNP formed as an alliance of conservatives created in the aftermath of the Reagan election in 1981 to lay the groundwork for policy objectives. Among its associates are the Mercer and Koch families, backers of prominent right-wing movements and organisations.

Among the people who populate the story are Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, a conspiracy theorist who died in 1983 when his plane was shot down by the Russians; Jack Singlaub, a two-star general relieved of duty by President Jimmy Carter, who with McDonald founded Western Goals, a private intelligence network implicated in the Iran-Contra affair; and Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist who was a one-woman wrecking ball against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). 

“Basically, what it looks like is this network of folks connected with the CNP that includes the Mercers, and the Kochs, coordinated a variety of campaigns in coordination with a variety of entities in Russia that are connected to the Kremlin to advance traditional values and disinformation and a variety of other things around the world,” Troy told Byline Times

“A lot of the people involved with CNP got involved with a group called the World Congress of Families that was put together in the mid-‘90s by an American visiting Russia, who realised that traditional values family values were something that would unite the East and the West, Russia and the United States.” By 2011, the World Congress of Families started scheduling their meetings in Russia.

“You ended up with all these traditional family organisations traveling to Russia on a repeated basis, and connecting with people like Aleksandr Dugin, a mystic philosopher who has been an advisor to Putin who has developed this Eurasianist global framework,” Troy explained.

Dugin’s writings have promoted fascist views and a Euro-Asian empire capable of overthrowing the Western world.  The World Congress of Families was the connective tissue between CNP and Russia, and their network of right-wing moralists.

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“So these folks went from being virulently anti-USSR to being pro-Russia because they saw Putin’s network as being capitalistic, aligned with the Orthodox Church, and pro-family,” said Troy. “They felt as though the Russians, and specifically through the autocratic expression of rule from Putin, were very much allies. So that’s how that really weird reversal happened.”

Byline Times requested comments from CNP and the World Congress of Families for this story, but did not receive a response.


Funding Psyops

Troy’s journey down these rabbit holes began in 2007, when he started doing social media data research to see how people were using social media, what for, and how communities formed online. He began doing network analysis using data from LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. 

“Networks are really interesting from a mathematical perspective because they can tell you a lot about human behaviour in terms of sociology, and they’re also the basis for psyops, a fancy term for influence campaigns,” said Troy. 

Psyops, or psychological operations, “can be nefarious because people can organise them in ways that people aren’t expecting,” said Troy. 

By 2016, he began probing the Mercer-backed Cambridge Analytica, while also viewing the Kremlin’s campaign in Ukraine, and by 2020, he says three main threats came into his scope.

“The main threats we saw on the horizon and that I spent most of my time working on were: COVID-related disinformation; Parler, which seemed pretty clearly to me to be an op of some kind, and I was trying to figure out what kind; and QAnon, which also appeared to be an op of some kind,” he said.

“The COVID stuff was originating from some of the very same people that were connected to QAnon, which were connected to some of the same people behind Parler.”

He said despite historical precedents, the United States was not prepared for this psyops’ blitzkrieg. 

“The technology to arrange people into pathologically harmful social capital configurations is something that can be weaponised, and it has been weaponised throughout history and around the world,” he said. “And we in the United States have not been accustomed to that kind of thing being truly weaponised, but that in fact is what something like QAnon is, the weaponisation of social capital to create cult-like behaviours, and in turn it harms the people that are involved.”

He said it’s important to view the people that have been sucked into this stuff as victims of a technology that was intended to harm them.


QAnon and Networked Insurgency

That the weaponised disinformation is coming from disgruntled former military and intelligence sources is disturbing, but follows a historic pattern. Many of the forefathers of the right-wing moralist movement had been benched by presidents, becoming martyrs to their acolytes.

“Michael Flynn was very much seen as a martyr, a ‘victim’ for standing up and ‘doing the right thing’ which was exactly the same kind of thing they were trying to tap into with Iran Contra,” said Troy. “Oliver North was portrayed as a martyr and all the people connected to him were seen as ‘patriots’ who were caught up in something that was ‘unfair.’

In truth, money to fund the Contras from arms sales was being laundered through the McDonald-Singlaub slush fund that operated outside of congressional controls. General Michael Flynn represented this kind of next generation outsider, spinning a narrative of being unnecessarily constrained, demonising the Democratic party by reducing it to ‘communists’ who don’t understand what it means to be ‘a real American’.

“There’s this whole tradition of pissed off military people who think they know better than everybody else, especially civilians,” said Troy.

Flynn served directly under McChrystal in the Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan. The Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings, who wrote a book in 2012 titled The Operators about the war in Afghanistan, died in a fiery car crash in 2013.

In 2014, Flynn was pushed out of the Defense Intelligence Agency over leadership clashes. In 2017, he was ousted from his job as a national security advisor after not disclosing meetings and payments by Russians and ties to the Turkish government. Flynn is among the former military officers espousing conspiracy theories from the swamps of QAnon.

Flynn did not respond to a request for comments to this story.

“There’s been all sorts of speculation as to what QAnon is and most of the argument around it has been kind of brain dead,” said Troy. “Instead, try to evaluate it based on what you can see. So looking at it strictly empirically, that’s when I started looking at all these intel folks. Other researchers that I collaborate with began bringing this to me saying, ‘Look at all these weirdos that are amplifying this stuff.’ 

“Me and other researchers spent a lot of time last fall raising alarm bells with journalists, saying, ‘Dudes, this is crazy.’ All these military folks and intel people are saying this stuff, some of whom have backgrounds with psyops, it makes you think that aspects of this may actually be being informed by people with expertise in those kinds of operations.”

He says he came to the conclusion that this was some kind of operation that was being puppet mastered by people who had experience in that field. 

“My current take on it is it’s something more organic than that wherein, QAnon crawled out of the sewer that is the Chans, it started moving around, people observed it and said, ‘Hmm, this has some utility.’ And people started feeding it and using it. Over time, it got tuned to be something that could be manipulated and used to an effect. Flynn by July of 2020 was asking people to take oaths in support of it.”

Troy says he finds it alarming that Flynn is an expert in networked insurgency. 

“He understands that this doesn’t have an org chart,” he told Byline Times. “It’s a movement. And from working in Afghanistan, he would know that if you want some people to do some things you just have to plant some messaging with some mullahs, get the mullahs to put out the word about something, and then what do you know, something happens.”

When following the money, Troy found a Mercer trail in all of this. 

Robert Mercer’s daughter Rebekah invested in Parler, which we know because of the work Troy did investigating Parler’s origins which ultimately led to a congressional investigation into Parler. 

The discovery that it was funded by the Mercers reflects his original thesis that each rabbit hole leads back to the same network of people. He says unless somebody stops the Mercer family, they will simply move onto the next thing. 

Byline Times contacted the Mercer Family Foundation for comment for this story, but have not as yet received a response. 


The Attack on the Capitol

Between QAnon and the aggro chatter on Parler, the groundwork was being laid for the deadly 6 January insurgency.

“I see it in three different layers,” said Troy. “You’ve got the CNP crowd, and their goal was to retain/gain power. What that was going to be is unclear. Maybe they were going to kill a bunch of people. They had some sort of idea they were going to retain power. So that was one roll of the dice.

“Then there are the CIA haters. If they had gotten into retaining power, the very first thing they would have done is blow up the CIA or inflict as much damage as they possibly could. 

“Then lastly, the Russian folks are looking at it and going along with it, and they really don’t like the CIA, and they’d like to see it blown up, so they’re with it all the way. Not only would it be great for them to blow up the CIA, but also they would be ecstatic to inflict what amounts to a death blow on American democracy.”

Despite its failing, the bitter ugliness of the insurgency left America’s reputation badly bruised.

“Certainly, we’ve damaged our own self image of what American democracy is about and our ability to have a peaceful transfer of power,” Troy told Byline Times. “But we’ve also damaged the country’s reputation globally which in turn hurts our leadership capability in bringing other countries along in the path to democracy and that of course only advances one person’s agenda and that is Putin’s.”

In the framework Troy lays out, everything aligns. The bigger picture of American and Russian moralists trying to overthrow democracy actually makes sense.

“You have to cover about 50 years of history to really get it, but that is the nature of what we’re dealing with it,” he said.

“It’s really necessary to get a 10,000 foot view above all of this stuff in order for it to make any sense and to know where to look,” Troy told Byline Times. “We need to get to the bottom of what all has happened. The good news is we’re starting to put the puzzle pieces together. I just hope on the law enforcement prosecutorial side they grow some teeth otherwise there’s going to be a lot of people who get away with it.”

As our interview extends into its second hour, I realise Trump’s name hasn’t come up once. 

“At the end of the day, it is important to recognise that this was never really about him per se,” said Troy. “Where he was useful is that he created the momentum and the centre of gravity to bring everybody along that these people wanted to weaponise, but in terms of who’s really running things here, it’s always been the Mercers, the Kochs, the Steve Bannons, the CNP people. It’s still them. And nothing’s changed. And one day, Trump will die, and there will be some new avatar that they nominate for the same purpose.”

You’ve been warned. 

Heidi Siegmund Cuda is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and author.

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